1878: Max Hödel

4 comments August 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1878, journeyman tinsmith Max Hödel was beheaded in Berlin’s New Prison for taking a potshot at Kaiser Wilhelm I.

Nothing daunted by the prospect of trading his life for an 81-year-old* man’s, this propagandist of the deed tried to kill the conservative German emperor in May of 1878. He missed his target, but killed a bystander.

(Hodel’s cover story that he was just trying to blow his own brains out, not shoot the emperor, was belied by a number of hints he had given to others prior to the attack — e.g., telling a photographer who took his picture that the photo would soon be worth thousands.)

Just weeks after Hodel’s miss, another unsuccessful attempt to kill the emperor was undertaken by Karl Nobiling. Though Nobiling died of self-inflicted injuries, Hodel had to make do with decapitation.

Reichstag fire-like, these two outrages provided the Reich sufficient pretext to outlaw the Social Democratic Party** — even though the gunmen were much more radical types than this. (Hodel himself had previously been booted from the SDP.)

Germans having taken a front-row seat to the Paris Commune just a few years before, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had no intention of allowing radical organizing of any variety to pick up any steam.

Coincidentally, our day’s protagonist shares an execution date with the next generation’s (better) anarchist assassin, Sante Geronimo Caserio — guillotined 16 Aug. 1894 for killing the French president.

* And he was right: nature didn’t take its course with Kaiser Wilhelm for nine more years; he missed outliving his own son and heir by a mere three months.

** Engels — writing polemically, of course — reckons over 11,000 political prisoners arrested from 1879 to 1880 alone.

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1871: The Paris Commune falls

15 comments May 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the last barricade of the Paris Commune fell to the onslaught of the army — and a legion of Parisians fell to the army’s firing squads.

On the evening of that bright Sunday when the insurrection finally collapsed, a Sunday when the streets of central Paris were crowded with returning bourgeois, all expressing their satisfaction that the struggle was at last over, the city’s walls were placarded with a proclamation emanating from MacMahon. “Inhabitants of Paris,” said he, “the Army of France has come to save you. Paris is delivered. At four o’clock our soldiers carried the last position occupied by the insurgents. Today the struggle is over, order, work and security will now revive.

I read that announcement in the Rue de Rivoli, not far from the Hotel-de-Ville. A moment later, however, I heard a discharge of musketry … Several insurgents who had been taken fighting were being shot. (My Adventures in the Commune, Paris, 1871, an anti-Commune source)

The day was climax and curtains for the first working-class seizure of power in industrial Europe, but in truth indiscriminate reprisal executions had been underway since troops of the conservative Versailles government first breached rebellious Paris on May 21.

What followed was semaine sanglante, the “bloody week” — each barricade’s surviving defenders executed summarily, and anyone in the city liable to a similar fate if the nearest French officer disliked the cut of his or her jib. Rumors swept the city that women of the Commune were torching buildings, for instance, and suddenly any woman in the street could be killed as an arsonist; some firefighters were shot as saboteurs when the “water” they threw on such flames failed to speedily quench them,* and was consequently adjudged to be kerosone.

And heaven help he who should chance to resemble one of the wanted Communard leaders!

Any passer-by calling a man by a revolutionary name caused him to be shot by soldiers eager to get the premium … Members and functionaries of the Commune were thus shot, and often several times over, in the persons of individuals who resembled them more or less.


Un rue de Paris en 1871, by Maximilien Luce.

The total body counts are guesswork: the killing ran far ahead of the record-keeping. Twenty thousand, or thirty, or more are thought to perished by summary execution. Even the press of the bourgeoisie, whose sword arm the Versailles men comprised, was aghast. London’s Times filled its broadsheets with calumnies upon the Commune, but noted on May 29:

“The Revolution is crushed;” but at what a cost, and amid what horrors! … the Communists seem not very much worse than their antagonists. It sounds like trifling for M. Thiers to be denouncing the Insurgents for having shot a captive officer “without respect for the laws of war.” The laws of war! They are mild and Christian compared with the inhuman laws of revenge under which the Versailles troops have been shooting, bayoneting, ripping up prisoners, women and children, during the last six days.

Whatever the true death toll, it massively surpassed that of the much more eagerly commemorated Revolutionary Terror.

Not for Executed Today to number what the butchers themselves could not. In a city turned charnel house in the midst of a Week of Blood, a few scenes of mortality from the day the Commune fell. (Heavily sourced to the very pro-Commune — hence potentially sensational — History of the Commune of 1871)

This people, heroes in the face of the foreigner, must therefore by called assassins, criminals, wretches, because they died for the Universal Republic, because in defense of their beliefs, their conscience, their idea, they preferred, in their fierce enthusiasm, to bury themselves in the ruins of Paris rather than abandon it to the coalition of despots a thousand times more cruel and more lasting than any foreigner.

-Lissagaray

The 147 Fédérés at Communards’ Wall

At a wall still consecrated to leftists in the Pere Lachaise cemetery of Belleville, 147 were summarily shot.

The 147 are acclaimed as the last defenders of the Commune.

the Commune is in its death throes. Like the dragon of fairy lore, it dies, vomiting flames … What must these men feel who are killing and being killed in the cemetery! To die among the dead seems horrible. But they never give it a thought; the bloody thirst for destruction which possesses them allows them only to think of one thing, of killing! Some of them are gay, they are brave, these men. That makes it only the more dreadful; these wretches are heroic! Behind the barricades there have been instances of the most splendid valour. A man at the Porte Saint-Martin, holding a red flag in his hand, was standing, heedless of danger, on a pile of stones. The balls showered around him, while he leant carelessly against an empty barrel which stood behind. — “Lazy fellow,” cried a comrade. ‘”No,” said he, “I am only leaning that I may not fall when I die.”

-Paris Under the Commune, an anti-Commune source

Communard Eugene Varlin

Varlin, alas! was not to escape. On Sunday the 28th May he was recognized in the Rue Lafayette, and led, or rather dragged, to the foot of the Buttes Montmartre before the commanding general. The Versaillese sent him to be shot in the Rue des Rosiers. For an hour, a mortal hour, Varlin was dragged through the streets of Montmartre, his hands tied behind his back, under a shower of blows and insults. His young, thoughtful head, that had never harboured other thoughts than of fraternity, slashed open by the sabres, was soon but one mass of blood, of mangled flesh, the eye protruding from the orbit. On reaching the Rue des Rosiers, he no longer walked; he was carried. They set him down to shoot him. The wretches dismembered his corpse with blows of the butt-ends of their muskets.

Varlin was shot along with a nameless batch of others to whom the March 18 execution of Generals Lecomte and Thomas had been hastily imputed (they were held at the generals’ execution site, to contemplate their sin). A pro-government paper allowed that Varlin “died game.”


L’execution de Varlin, another Maximilien Luce scene.

Many at the stock exchange

According to the Paris Francais as quoted by this Marxist review of the events

It is at the Bourse that there was to-day the largest number of executions. The doomed men who attempted to resist were bound to the iron railing.

The stock exchange is “a fit place, to be sure, for this sort of business,” observes our interlocutor.

Eighty-plus defenders of Belleville, at the Arc de Triomphe

The London Times editorialized on May 31 upon this incident when the Marquis de Gallifet plucked from the mass of Belleville’s May 28 captives “eighty prisoners, principally soldiers of every arm, linesmen, artillerymen, and Zouaves, [who] were set apart and afterwards led to the right of the rampart to be shot.”

The French are filling up the darkest page in the book of their own or the world’s history. The charge of ruthless cruelty is no longer limited to one party or to one class of persons. The Versailles troops seem inclined to outdo the Communists in their lavishness of human blood. The Marquis de Gallifet is escorting a column of prisoners to Versailles or Satory. He “picks out eighty-two of them, and shoots them at the Arc de Triomphe.” Next came a lot of 20 firemen, then a dozen women, one aged 70. On another spot our Correspondent came upon “80 corpses, piled upon each other, a mass of arms and legs and distorted faces, while the roads and gutter literally flowed with blood.” About 1,000 are said to have thus suffered. By this wholesale and summary execution of prisoners in batches of 50 and 100, not only must the innocent perish with the guilty, but many must bear the penalty of imaginary guilt.

An utterly disconnected Englishman, according to the paper’s correspondent, was accidentally among the four score at the Arc, and only saved by the fortuitous intervention of a Belgian attache.

an English officer somehow got mixed up in the procession, and was forced to keep in it by the escort, who, out of 5,000 prisoners, could not, of course, be expected to recognize one innocent man … it so happened that some of the prisoners tried to escape, and to make an example the leader of the cavalry escort, the Marquis de Gallifet, a man who is not prone to err on the side of mercy, had then and there 81 shot, and the English officer was all but one of them, his explanations being at first refused the slightest attention. Human life has, in fact, become so cheap that a man is shot more readily than a dog.

Socialist physician Tony Moilin

One single fact was Tony Moilin reproached with: that of having on the 18th March taken possession of the mairie of his arrondissement, and having thus had a share in giving the signal for the insurrection …

The court-martial condescended to tell him that the fact of the mairie, the only one he could be reproached with, had in itself not much importance, and did not merit death, but that he was one of the chiefs of the Socialist party, dangerous through his talents, his character, and his influence over the masses; one of those men, in short, of whom a prudent and wise Government must rid itself when it finds a legitimate occasion to do so

[A] respite of twelve hours was granted him in order that he might make his testament, write a few words of farewell to his father, and finally [marry his pregnant lover] … on the 28th May, in the morning, Tony Moilin was led into the garden a few steps from the palace and shot. His body, which his widow claimed, the surrender of which had been at first promised, was refused her. (History of the Commune of 1871)

The unnumbered dead of Lobau Barracks

Since morning a strong cordon is being formed round the theatre (Châtelet); where a court-martial is permanently established. From time to time one sees a band of fifteen to twenty individuals coming out, composed of National Guards, civilians, women and children fifteen to sixteen years old.

These individuals are condemned to death. They march two by two, escorted by a platoon of chasseurs, who lead and bring up the rear. This cortege goes up the Quai de Gevres and enters the Republican Barracks in the Place Lobau. A minute after one hears from within the fire of platoons and successive musketry discharges; it is the sentence of the court-martial which has just been executed.

The detachment of chasseurs returns to the Chatelet to fetch other prisoners. The crowd seems deeply impressed on hearing the noise of the shootings.

This is another publication’s story cited in the History of the Commune of 1871, which itself also details the court-martial procedures of this drumhead tribunal:

Thousands of prisoners who were led there were first of all penned in upon the stage and in the auditorium, under the guns of the soldiers placed in the boxes; then, little by little, like sheep driven to the door of the slaughter-house, from wing to wing they were pushed to the saloon, where, round a large table, officers of the army and the honest National Guard were seated, their sabres between their legs, cigars in their mouths. The examination lasted a quarter of a minute. ‘Did you take arms? Did you serve the Commune? Show your hands.’ If the resolute attitude of a prisoner betrayed a combatant, if his face was unpleasant, without asking for his name, his profession, without entering any note upon any register, he was classed. ‘You?’ was said to the next one, and so on to the end of the file, without excepting the women, children, and old men. When by a caprice a prisoner was spared, he was said to be ordinary, and reserved for Versailles. No one was liberated.

The classed ones were at once delivered to the executioners, who led them into the nearest garden or court. From the Châtelet, for instance, they were taken to the Lebau Barracks. There the doors were no sooner closed than the gendarmes fired, without even grouping their victims before a platoon. Some, only wounded, ran along by the walls, the gendarmes chasing and shooting at them till they fell dead. … There were so many victims, that the soldiers, tired out, were obliged to rest their guns actually against the sufferers. The wall of the terrace was covered with brains; the executioners waded through pools of blood.


Summary executions — death squads — continued for days or weeks afterwards in Paris; martial law throttled left organizing in the city; and those “fortunate” enough to have been captured alive were processed in a steady stream of judicial executions over the months yet to come.

The Commune, a palpably subversive example even in the present day, was destroyed in every way possible for the Versailles government. But its example could hardly be forgotten.

Marx would write The Civil War in France of the only proletarian revolution he would actually witness in his lifetime.

The next generation’s subversives also took inspiration from the Parisian example … and lessons from its mistakes. Lenin — a fond student of the Commune, who was eventually buried wrapped in a Communard banner — said that

two mistakes destroyed the fruits of the splendid victory. The proletariat stopped half-way: instead of setting about “expropriating the expropriators”, it allowed itself to be led astray by dreams of establishing a higher justice in the country united by a common national task; such institutions as the banks, for example, were not taken over … The second mistake was excessive magnanimity on the part of the proletariat: instead of destroying its enemies it sought to exert moral influence on them; it underestimated the significance of direct military operations in civil war, and instead of launching a resolute offensive against Versailles that would have crowned its victory in Paris, it tarried and gave the Versailles government time to gather the dark forces and prepare for the blood-soaked week of May.

“The lesson learnt by the proletariat will not be forgotten,” Lenin vowed, and his own revolution gained a vital object lesson in the Bloody Week of Paris, and an anthem besides: Communard Eugene Pottier, fleeing the Versailles army’s slaughter, wrote the verses that have been sung ever since by millions dreaming of a better world — the Internationale.

* Water can accelerate a fire, under the right circumstances.

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1973: Victor Jara, among thousands in Chile’s September 11

6 comments September 15th, 2008 Headsman

At an unknown time on this evening in 1973, or else the early hours of the following day, Chilean putschists ushering in the Pinochet dictatorship machine-gunned folk singer Victor Jara near the Santiago stadium that today bears his name.

“I don’t see why we need to stand idly by and let a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people,” said Henry Kissinger of Allende’s election. Victor Jara had another idea.

Four days before, Chile’s September 11 had seen General Augusto Pinochet topple the elected leftist government of Salvador Allende, murdering the president in his palace. (Or, go some accounts, Allende committed suicide — “pausing only twice to reload.”)

A long pall of evil settled over the country, with all the accustomed chilling familiars: “disappeared” people, mirrored shades, Jeane Kirkpatrick.

The day after the CIA-backed coup, popular folk singer and activist Victor Jara, a pioneer of the Nueva Cancion (“New Song” movement) then teaching at Santiago’s Technical University, was among thousands of undesirables rounded up and packed off to a makeshift prison camp at the city’s Chile Stadium — a stadium Jara had performed at.*

Left there to the tender mercies of a thuggish Chilean officer, Jara was beaten and tortured over the intervening days — evocative but possibly undependable tradition holds that the guitarist’s hands were cut off, shattered or otherwise destroyed. According to the U.S.-based United States Institute of Peace,

[t]he the last day Víctor Jara was seen alive was September 15. During the afternoon he was taken out of a line of prisoners who were being transferred to the National Stadium. In the early morning of the next day, September 16, shantytown dwellers found his body, along with five others, including that of Littré Quiroga Carvajal, near the Metropolitan Cemetery. As the autopsy report states, Víctor Jara died as a result of multiple bullet wounds (44 entry wounds and 32 exit wounds).

The Commission came to the conviction that he was executed without due process of law by government agents, and hence in violation of his fundamental human rights.

To say the least.

And as the text implies, Jara was only the most recognizable name among unknown hundreds killed as the military cemented its control of the country.

Jara remains larger-than-life martyr figure in Latin America and liberation movements worldwide, but he’s almost unknown north of the Rio Grande. Pinochet was our bastard; in the weird way history writes its own geography, Jara became a political emblem behind the Iron Curtain for the perfidy of the capitalist powers: obscure in Peoria, but a household name in Potsdam, as the credit roll from this 1978 East German film suggests.**

That’s Jara himself on the soundtrack, of course. The pat conclusion for such a figure is that his art is his legacy, and that Jara’s body of work as against Pinochet’s will be a walkover in posterity. Is that enough? Pinochet died in his bed at age 91; earlier this year, the Jara case was closed in underwhelming fashion. Thirty-five years down the road, most authors of Pinochet’s human rights depredations are dead or lost or decrepit. Justice delayed is justice denied.

Victor’s widow, Joan Jara — today director of the Fundacion Victor Jara (it’s a Spanish-only site); you can hear her interviewed on Democracy Now! for the 25th anniversary of her husband’s death in 1998 — managed to leave the country with some of his works.

Her publication of a poem he wrote while imprisoned, an untitled, unfinished work generally known as “Estadio Chile,” made it a signature cry of hope amid desperation. Here it is in the Spanish rough-hewn under the shadow of death; there’s an English translation here.

Somos cinco mil
en esta pequena parte de la ciudad.
Somos cinco mil
¿Cuantos seremos en total
en las ciudades de todo el pais?
Solo aqui, diez mil manos que sembran
y hacen andar las fabricas.

¡Cuanta humanidad
con hambre, frio, panico, dolor
presion moral, terror y locura!

…¡Y Mexico, Cuba y el mundo?
¡Que gritan esta ignomonia!

Somos diez mil manos menos
que no producen.
¿Cuanto somos en toda la Patria?
La sangre del companero Presidente
golpea mas fuerte que bombas y metrallas.
Asi golpeara nuestro puno nuevamente.

¡Canto que mal me sales
cuando tengo que cantar espanto!
Espanto como el que vivo
como el que muero, espanto.

De verme entre tanto y tantos
momentos de infinito
en que el silencio y el grito
son las metas de este canto.
Lo que veo nunca vi,
lo que he sentido y lo que siento
hara brotar el momento…

Whether or not it’s enough, his work is his legacy after all.

* Some 7,000 people were held at Chile Stadium in the days after the coup, most later moved in with other detainees at the larger Estadio Nacional. The USIP excerpt alludes to Jara being pulled out for execution during such a move.

** In a similar vein, Stanford has a small online exhibit of Jara-themed East German propaganda art. Not to be outdone, there’s a Soviet rock opera about Jara, and an asteroid discovered by a Soviet astronomer was named in Jara’s honor within a week of his execution.

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1937: Ikki Kita

1 comment August 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1937, intellectual Kita Ikki (Kita is the family name) was executed by the Japanese military government for inspiring a failed coup d’etat the previous year.

A onetime socialist turned radical nationalist, Kita — born Kita Terujiro — preached a doctrine of authoritarian national restoration around some socialist-sounding communitarian purpose, coupled with an unapologetic imperialism.

His Outline Plan for the Reorganization of Japan (the translation is from a reader, Sources of Japanese Tradition, partially excerpted here) argues that in the wake of Europe’s self-immolation in World War I, initiative lay with the Land of the Rising Sun — and that the country must adopt a muscular unity of purpose to grasp it.

The entire Japanese people, thinking calmly from this perspective which is the result of Heaven’s rewards and punishments, should, in planning how the great Japanese empire should be reorganized, petition for a manifestation of the imperial prerogative establishing “a national opinion in which no dissenting voice is heard, by the organization of a great union of the Japanese people.” Thus, by homage to the emperor, a basis for national reorganization can be set up.

Truly, our 700 million brothers in China and India have no path to independence other than that offered by our guidance and protection. And for our Japan, whose population has doubled in the past fifty years, great areas adequate to support a population of at least 240 million or 250 million will be absolutely necessary a hundred years from now. For a nation, one hundred years are like a hundred days for an individual. How can those who are anxious about the inevitable developments or who grieve over the desperate conditions of neighboring countries find their solace in the effeminate pacifism of doctrinal socialism? … At a time when the authorities in the European and American revolutionary creeds have found it completely impossible to arrive at an understanding of the “gospel of the sword” because of their superficial philosophy, the noble Greece of Asian culture [meaning Japan, of course] must complete its national reorganization on the basis of its own national polity. At the same time, let it lift the virtuous banner of an Asian league and take the leadership in the world federation that must come. In so doing let it proclaim to the world the Way of Heaven in which all are children of Buddha, and let it set an example that the world must follow.

One could quibble about particulars, but it’s essentially fascism — paralleling Mussolini in doctrine as well as ideological evolution. (According to W.G. Beasley Kita also co-founded a Gen. Jack Ripper-esque Society for the Preservation of the National Essence.)

A military coup was supposed to get the ball rolling, which made him a guru to an aggressive cadre of young officers who tried to seize the government in the February 26 Incident, named for the date in 1936 it took place.

Kita wasn’t himself involved in the coup, but his intellectual sponsorship was enough of a connection for the Kempeitai.* Modern Japanese Thought tartly observes that Kita’s vision for an imperial dictatorship didn’t turn on any misty-eyed allegiance to the emperor’s person.

When he was executed for his role in the mutiny of 1936, he was ordered to recant by saying “long live the emperor” as a final act of reverence and submission. He is reported to have refused by replying that he had vowed long ago never to joke about his own death.

In Fighting Elegy (or Elegy to Violence or Elegy to Fighting), Seijun Suzuki’s 1960’s skewering of militarist 1930’s Japan (review), Kita makes cameos to inspire the main male character to greater feats of violent sublimation of his repressed sexuality. (The following clip is merely the trailer.)

There’s also a 1973 biopic — the last film of Yoshishige Yoshida.

* I don’t have definite documentation on the method of execution; I’m supposing it was hanging, the standard method in Japan since the Meiji period.

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1916: James Connolly, socialist revolutionary

9 comments May 12th, 2008 Sem

On this date in 1916, James Connolly was tied to a chair and executed by firing squad along with Sean Mac Diarmada.

James Connolly: Irish revolutionary.

Connolly was born to Irish immigrant parents in Scotland. His first experience in his ancestral home of Ireland was during his stint in the British Army where, stationed in and around Cork, he had the opportunity to witness firsthand both the poor treatment of the native Irish by the British forces as well as the grave disparities between the landowning and peasant classes. When he returned home to Scotland, he fell in with the socialist crowd and quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the movement’s leaders. He actively participated in socialist organizations in several countries and joined the ranks of the Industrial Workers of the World.

A variety of circumstances brought him back to Ireland, where he led Irish socialists in seeking rights for the working class, joining the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1912. He went on to head the Union two years later when the General Secretary, “Big” Jim Larkin, left for a speaking tour. In this capacity, he found a crowd for his increasingly open talks of revolution. Frustrated by what he saw as the unwillingness of the bourgeois Irish Volunteers, Connolly spoke persistently about sacrificing his own life in the name of economic freedom for Ireland, starting The Workers’ Republic journal, then printing his treatise The Re-Conquest of Ireland in 1915. Connolly headed just one revolutionary faction in Ireland at the time. Not wishing to have their festivities spoiled by Connolly, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, another revolutionary paramilitary group, decided to invite him to their Easter party.

The General Post Office in Dublin after the uprising.

The Easter Rising, which had little support from the Irish public at the time, began on April 24, 1916. Connolly led the Dublin Brigrade, which held the Dublin General Post Office, and so was in essence a sort of Commander-in-Chief during the uprising. Six days later, the Easter Rising came to a close with a surrender to British troops; it’s leaders, who had issued a proclamation of Irish freedom, were quickly sentenced to death by firing squad in the courtyard of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.

Injured during the fighting, Connolly had only been given a few more days to live by the doctors that attended him at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. Unable to stand on his own due to his injuries, he was tied to a chair in order to face the firing squad.

The rapidity and brutality of the executions shocked the Irish public and the conditions of Connolly’s death were most shocking of all. After the executions, the corpses of the 15 put to death (killed between May 3 and May 12) were placed into an unmarked mass grave. The Irish people, previously largely indifferent to the republican rantings of the revolutionaries, angrily regarded British action against the leaders of the Easter Rising, granting legitimacy to the rebellion.

The death of Connolly and the other leaders of the six-day siege presaged the final revolution that led to a free Irish state. Two of Connolly’s cohorts in the Easter campaign were Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins; within a half dozen years, the two* expanded revolutionary tactics through Sinn Fein that forced the British to the bargaining table, meetings that would give rise to the bitterly partitioned Ireland of today. Connolly is still regarded as one of the greatest Britons, though he spent his life fighting the British, and the Irish have celebrated his memory through several songs.

* While de Valera and Collins were regarded as the primary players in Irish statehood, the Easter Rising included dozens of revolutionaries who would spend their lives fighting for Irish independence.

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1849: Not Fyodor Dostoyevsky

16 comments December 22nd, 2007 Sonechka

“Brother, I am not dejected or crestfallen. Life, life is everywhere, life is in us ourselves, not outside. Near me will be people, and to be a person among persons and stay him forever, to not be cast down or despondent no matter what the misfortunes are – therein lies life, therein lies its purpose. I realized that. This idea entered my flesh and blood. Yes! It’s true! The head that created and got accustomed to the higher demands of the spirit, that head is cut off from my shoulders. What’s left are the memories and images created and not reified by me. They will ulcerate me, indeed! What I have left is my heart and the same flesh and blood, which can love, suffer, pity, and remember, and this is life, after all …” (quote — in Russian; the translation is mine)

The square — now named Pionerskaya Ploschad’ — where Dostoyevsky faced a mock execution. Image used with permission.

This slightly rambling epistle is authored by a titan of the world literature, a schizophrenic, a gambler, a true believer, a sufferer, a humanitarian, an epileptic, a Russian, a philosopher, a St. Petersburger, the Writer. Let us forgive him a certain incongruity of thought, since that letter was his first salute to a newly acquired chance to live.

On this date in 1849, Dostoevsky, along with some 20 other condemned, was brought out to St. Petersburg’s Semyonovsky platz. They were meant to be shot for affiliation with the Petrashevsky circle, a group of idealistic young intellectuals, apologists of Fourier and fervent advocates of socialism. Just like the generation of aristocrats (alas, some of them will be featured on this macabre blog) before them and generations of intelligentsia (whose destiny is equally unenviable) after them, Petrashevtsy gathered at Petersburg’s flats, read articles and concerned themselves with the fate of the permanently-rising-from-the-knees Motherland.

The formal charges brought upon Dostoevsky were quite bizarre: he listened to a story that criticized the army; had in his possession an illegal printing press; read an open letter to the circle from Belinsky to Gogol which excoriated the church and government; and participated in a regicide plot. The latter accusation Fyodor Mikhailovich vehemently denied, for indeed he was not a bloodthirsty revolutionary, but a proponent of the peaceful Christ’s teaching (this affliction with Christian philosophy was incidentally somewhat of a mauvais ton among the predominantly atheistic circle).

It always seemed to me that Dostoevsky’s participation in the Petrashevky circle was a tribute to the epoch’s fad. It was the imperfections of human nature, not the peculiarities of a hypothetical social structure, that concerned him greatly. The world’s wrongdoings result from something rotten in a man’s soul, and once those internal blemishes are erased, the external harmony emerges. “Beauty will save the world”, a cliché instilled in every Russian by a literature teacher in 10th grade, a phrase attributed to Christ-like kniaz’ Myshkin, and one of Dostoevsky’s most important statements: inner beauty is vital, the rest is a consequence.

The military court condemned Dostoevsky to death. The general-auditor amended this decision and recommended a lighter punishment: “… deprive of all fortune and send to hard labor in fortresses for eight years”. The final resolution of Nicholas I reduced the sentence to four years, “and then [relegate] to [the rank of] private … declare clemency only at the moment when everything is ready for execution”.

Here is a slightly brushed up account of how the ugly farce actually transpired:

“Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute could be a century of happiness …” continued Dostoevsky his letter. In three days, he received a prisoner’s dress, a fur coat, and valenki. He was put in shackles and dispatched to Siberia …

Novels and Short Stories by Dostoyevsky

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,Last Minute Reprieve,Mass Executions,Mock Executions,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Treason

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1936: Edgar André

2 comments November 4th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1936, communist politician Edgar Andre was beheaded in Fuhlsbüttel Prison for treasonous complicity in the Reichstag Fire.

This 1936 German pamphlet denouncing Andre’s execution concludes: “Edgar André lives. In his spirit, we march: Despite all.”

A politician raised in Belgium, Andre had bolted the Socialist Party of Germany for the Communist Party in the early 1920’s, becoming a major labor leader in Hamburg. Andre was arrested within days of the 1933 Reichstag Fire as Adolf Hitler crushed official leftist opposition.

But Andre was not brought to trial for over three years — by which time torture had crippled and deafened him, and the political climate made the doubtful nature of the evidence against him scant protection in the courts. His conviction and sentence were a foregone conclusion.

The Spanish Civil War, which erupted over the summer of 1936 between Andre’s trial and execution, saw the service of a battalion in the International Brigades named for Edgar Andre.

Just days after Andre was beheaded, that battalion entered its first action — with German volunteers helping stave off fascist capture of Madrid. The unit’s hymn commemorated their namesake:

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arson,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,Politicians,Power,Torture,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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